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Apple Watch series 8 and Watch SE review: Slick, easy to use, responsive plus an always-on, larger display

·8-min read
When telling time, these stay accurate to a fraction of a second  (Apple)
When telling time, these stay accurate to a fraction of a second (Apple)

Since the first Apple Watch launched in spring 2015, the tech giant has dominated the smartwatch market. That’s been down to factors such as immaculate build quality, an intuitive interface, easy connection to an iPhone and, increasingly, outstanding health monitoring.

This year, there will be three Apple Watch models: Apple Watch series 8 (replacing last year’s series 7), Apple Watch SE second generation (no prizes for guessing this takes the spot of the SE first generation, which is now retired) and the brand new Apple Watch ultra. The latter arrives on 23 September and is a pricier model, aimed at those who like full-on sports, with a bigger screen, buttons designed to be pressed through gloves and more.

For most people, the choice to be made is between the series 8 and the SE, which is now the entry-level Apple Watch. Actually, there are more choices than that, as Apple has always put customisation to the fore with the Watch.

There are two sizes of cases, so you can choose what fits your wrist best, for a start. Then there are the metal finishes (aluminium for the SE, aluminium or stainless steel for the series 8) and a choice of colours. Then there are scores of straps and bands to choose from: a silicone strap for going swimming and a leather one for an evening out, perhaps? There are also Nike and Hermes special editions to consider. A lot of choice.

Please note that you need an iPhone with which to pair the Apple Watch. The companion iPhone provides the Watch with its data connection, though you can pay extra for models with cellular connection of their own, so you don’t need the iPhone with you. Even the base models have GPS, so you can get accurate results when you go for a run without your phone, for instance.

How we tested

I tested the Apple Watch models for ease of setup, how simple it is to pair them with your iPhone, the speed and responsiveness of the Watches, ease of using the key apps, and how long they last between charges. I also checked how good they are at telling the time – they stay accurate to a fraction of a second.

Apple Watch series 8

The new Apple Watch series 8 has the updated design that landed last autumn with the series 7. It introduced bigger screens, greater durability and faster charging. This, then, looks and feels the same, and the colours are similar, too, though there were extra ones last year.

The larger display is one of the standout features here, making it easier to read and with watch faces optimised for the bigger screen.

Series 8 continues Apple’s emphasis on health monitoring. It does the things that most smartwatches (including the SE) do, such as counting your steps and calories and tracking workouts, including swimming, running, yoga and more. It has a heart-rate monitor so that, like the SE, it can warn you if your heart rate goes unexpectedly high or low, or tell you if you have an irregular heart rhythm, along with notifications of cardio fitness.

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But it goes beyond the SE by adding a blood-oxygen monitor and sensors for measuring an ECG on your wrist. These were in last year’s model, but now there’s a temperature sensor too. Not to tell you if you have a fever, sadly, but to track your temperature while you sleep. This is used by the female-cycle tracking app to provide an estimate, retrospectively, to indicate likely ovulation, which is helpful for family planning. Additionally, tracking temperature overnight can provide general insights into one’s health, Apple says.

Also new this year is a safety update: crash detection. The improved accelerometer can recognise if you have been in a car crash, though let’s hope you never are, and can automatically connect to emergency services and share your exact location. It’s hard to simulate this safely in testing, but Apple claims it has millions of hours of driving data to back this up.

The series 8 has an always-on display, meaning you can sneak a look at your wrist in a dull meeting and see the time without having to raise your wrist to illuminate the screen. This is a feature that, once you’re used to it, you don’t want to go without again (and it’s something the SE lacks).

Read more: From cost to performance and display, we put the Apple Watch 7 to the test

There’s a new compass app in the latest software (compatible with the series 8 and SE watches, as well as earlier watches running watch OS 9). Sure, I never use the compass on mine either but, within the new app, there’s a neat extra called Backtrack (for Apple Watch series 6 and later), which helps you find your way back if you’ve got lost, recording GPS data, so you can retrace your steps. If you’re going somewhere that doesn’t have wifi or cellular connection, the watch spots this and automatically starts recording.

Both Apple Watch series 8 and SE have 18 hours’ battery life, so daily or nightly charges are needed. However, the series 8 has faster charging, with the special cable and charging puck supplied. Now, there’s also low-power mode, which turns off the always-on display and some other features but keeps activity tracking. With this, battery life doubles to 36 hours.

Apple Watch series 8 is slick and easy to use, and is very responsive and fast, whether you’re launching an app, getting directions on your Watch so you can keep your iPhone in your pocket, or setting a timer. Until the Apple Watch ultra comes along, this is the best Apple Watch yet.

Buy now £419.00, Apple.com

Apple Watch SE second generation

The new Apple Watch SE has a display that is the same as the Apple Watch series 4, 5 and 6 as well as the original SE. That means it’s not as big a screen as the series 8, where the display sumptuously squeaks out almost to the edge of the watch.

Turn the watch over and there’s a new design to the back, now colour-matched to the front case, which Apple says has a much lower carbon footprint.

The new SE is also cheaper than the original version, with the entry price dropping from £269 to £259. As the series 3 (originally launched in 2017) has now been retired, this is the most affordable Apple Watch. It makes it an ideal choice for that new trend: parents buying a smartwatch for their children instead of a phone. Apple has leaned into this with something called family setup, which means you can connect a family member without a phone, if you choose a GPS + cellular model.

Read more: These are the best Fitbits to help improve your health and fitness

Nonetheless, it has the same speedy processor as the series 8 and even the upcoming Apple Watch ultra. Unsurprisingly, then, it’s very fast and responsive.

Like the series 8, the SE has crash detection to alert emergency services if you’re in a car accident and both also have fall detection. This means if you fall down hard and don’t get up for 60 seconds, the watch will try to rouse you with an alarm noise and if all else fails will contact your chosen contacts or emergency services.

As with all Apple Watches, the straps and bands from earlier models fit the SE (and Series 8 and ultra). The smaller straps fit the smaller Watches from each generation, despite the case size changes, and the larger straps fit the larger Watches. In other words, if you’re upgrading from an earlier Watch, your band collection needn’t be thrown out.

Buy now £295.00, Apple.com

The verdict: Apple Watch series 8 and Apple Watch SE

The key similarity between the two Watches is that they have the same fast processor on board, which means performance is smooth and responsive. Both the series 8 and SE have cardio fitness notifications and, crucially, can let you know if your heart rate is irregular or goes surprisingly high or low. Fitness monitoring is the same on both, and both have crash detection and fall detection.

But for the best health tracking, you need the series 8, with its ECG capability and blood-oxygen tracking. It also has retrospective ovulation estimates for those tracking their cycles. Then there’s what, for me, is the deal-clincher: the always-on display. Once you’re used to the convenience of seeing the screen without raising your wrist or tapping the screen, it’s very hard to go back to a Watch without it.

Soon, there’ll be another watch, the Apple Watch ultra, but the screen will be too big for many. In terms of design, the screen size and longer-lasting battery, thanks to low-power mode, means the Apple Watch series 8 is worth every extra penny.

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